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No Time for Castles: From Closed to Open Democracy

For proponents of deliberative democracy, today’s representative regimes offer nothing more than illusion. Real democracy means people’s power, and achieving it requires out-of-the-box thinking. We spoke to political theorist Hélène Landemore about her proposed alternative of open democracy and what this would look like at local, European, and global levels. As citizens’ assemblies in France and Ireland offer valuable lessons, and with events from Brexit to the pandemic expanding the horizons of what is possible, there is no time like the present for utopian thinking.

Green European Journal: Voting, elections, and parliaments are universally considered symbols of democracy. But amid the wider debate on the crisis of democracy, you argue that the problem is the system of representative democracy itself. Can you explain?

Hélène Landemore: It helps to go back to the history of representative regimes in Europe. They originate in what historians call “representative government”: governments where the law is made by elected legislators. These forms of government only began to be called democracies as of circa 1830 in the US and France, and 1870 in Great Britain. But the reality is that they were designed as an alternative to democracy as much as to monarchy. For their founders, democracy meant mob rule. It was chaotic and overly direct. Fear of the people characterises representative democracies from the outset. Yes, they were built on principles of popular sovereignty and consent – but that isn’t sufficient for them to qualify as democracies. The everyday law-making process was carried out by elected aristocracies with the best and most virtuous at the helm and the people as a silent sovereign occasionally nodding from afar.

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Olduvai IV: Courage
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Olduvai II: Exodus
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